Gen Raheel Sharif has kicked off his farewell visits nearly a week before he is expected to retire as Chief of Army Staff, DG Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Asim Bajwa announced.
The army chief began his visits on Monday at the Lahore Garrison where he addressed and thanked a huge gathering of soldiers of Pakistan Army and Rangers.
Addressing the soldiers, Gen Raheel said accomplishment of peace and stability was “no ordinary task”.
“Our sacrifices and joint national resolve helped us in off-setting all odds against [the] country.”
Later on Monday, General Raheel also met the corp commanders of Mangla and Gujranwala. On the occasion he also met the troops posted at the garrisons and commended them for their high morale and dedication.
The army spokesman had in January rubbished rumours regarding an extension in Gen Sharif’s tenure as Chief of Army Staff, quoting the army chief as saying he will “retire on the due date” in November this year.
Speculation had been rife regarding an extension in the COAS’ term after former military ruler Musharraf called for an extension in his tenure, warning against a change in the military leadership.
The post of Army chief is inarguably the most powerful in Pakistan. On Nov 27, 2013, the government approved Sharif’s appointment for the post, a position that he took over from Ashfaq Parvez Kayani who stepped down on Nov 29, 2013.
Gen Sharif is expected to pass on the baton of command of the army to the next army chief at a ceremony by the end of this month.
He would be the first army chief to retire on time in two decades. His predecessors Gen Kayani and Gen Pervez Musharraf got extensions, while Gen Jehangir Karamat was sent home prematurely.
Who could be next?
Going by the book, it is the senior most three-star general who would become the next chief. But this rule is seldom observed. Even when Gen Sharif became the army chief he was third on the seniority list.
A panel of three general officers is sent to the prime minister by the defence ministry, but it is his (PM’s) discretion to appoint anyone whom he thinks is most suited for the job.
The next four in line are: Lt Gen Maqsood Ahmed (currently on deputation with the UN), Lt Gen Zubair Mehmood Hayat (Chief of General Staff), Lt Gen Syed Wajid Hussain (HIT Taxila) and Lt Gen Ishfaq Nadeem (Corps Commander Multan).
The race is wide open but some defence analysts are of the opinion that Gen Hayat and Gen Nadeem are among the front-runners.
Gen Raheel’s legacy
Back in 2013 when Gen Kayani announced that he would not take an extension for a second time, Gen Sharif was not among the favourites in the race for army chief. Even after he beat all the odds to become the chief, his detractors continued to doubt him saying he lacked intelligence and operations background.
But he did not allow those shortcomings to become a handicap and proved everyone wrong.
The high point in his tenure was the start of Operation Zarb-i-Azb in North Waziristan against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan in June 2014, something from which his predecessor shied away fearing blowback. The operation is now in its last stages. He is also credited for action against militancy in Karachi and partially restoring calm in the city.
Gen Sharif has all along been supportive of the government, except for a statement at the corps commanders’ conference last November when he expressed reservations over civilian administration’s governance. The comment presented the spectacle of a row between the civilian and military leadership. He has, nevertheless, maintained strong influence over the government’s foreign and national security policies.
The general garnered unprecedented popularity among the general public and on social media.
Earlier this year, mysterious banners calling on Gen Sharif to “take over” the government popped up in various cities across the country. Most recently, banners were spotted in Rawalpindi which urged him to contest the general elections in 2018. The army denied having any connection to the banners.
‘Gen Sharif set example of graceful retirement’
Political and defence analyst Zahid Hussain while talking to DawnNews said the greatest part of Gen Sharif’s legacy is that “he has led from the front”.
“We already knew Raheel Shareef would not take an extension and that is a good example to set.
“All the decisions taken in his time were bold and sometimes people questioned him but all his operations have been successful and time has proved his opposition wrong.”
“He has also set the example of a graceful retirement.”
Hussain said in Gen Sharif’s tenure, the army as an institution did it’s job and did not lag no matter what internal conflicts there may have been.
He said the army’s role could be made better in the future with better co-relations between the army and the civilian government.
Security analyst Talat Masood said the army chief’s tenure was one marked by successes. Gains were made in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Balochistan, Karachi and North Waziristan.
“He will be remembered for his leadership and his performance. He has set a good example by saying he will not take an extension after three years under any circumstances. This is unusual for Pakistan.”
“He’s retiring amid so much praise and affection. Every leader should strive to win people’s hearts through their position, profession and character,” Masood said.
“It will be challenging for the army chief after him [Gen Raheel] after the example he’s set in counter-terrorism, or with increasing the quality of our conventional or nuclear forces. They have shown unusual professional competence and it will strengthen our defence.”
Political and defence analyst Dr Hasan Askari emphasised the importance of communication between the civilian and military leadership. “Because the situation is sensitive, it is important that civilian and military leadership remain in touch and keep the consultation process ongoing… If consultation does not happen, it is possible the strain we have seen now and then in the past may arise again.”
Speaking about possible challenges that may arise for the civilian and military leadership, Dr Askari said ties with India, Afghanistan and the United States will be the biggest challenges faced by the institutions.
“India is building pressure along the Line of Control to increase pressure on Pakistan. It has increased the frequency of ceasefire violations. It will be a challenge.”
“It also remains to be seen how peace can be brought to Afghanistan. The world seems to look to Pakistan [in this capacity].”
Additionally, he said, the biggest challenge lies in the change in the American administration after the election of Donald Trump. Both civilian and military leadership will have to establish a relationship with the new US leadership, Dr Askari said.
He added that the leadership of institution is as important as the institutions themselves. “Institutions may be outstanding, but if their leadership cannot make sound decisions then even the influence of powerful institutions can be corroded.”
“It is important that our institutions learn from the mistakes that were made [in the past]… This is what will help us progress,” Dr Askari said.
Political scientist Rasool Baksh Rais said the transition should “not be considered a change”.
“It is simply a continuation, this is how it is supposed to be… In the past when an extension was given to a chief, it did not go down well, neither for the army nor for the individual.”
“Gen Raheel Sharif has carried out his term with dignity,” he added.
Journalist Hamid Mir was of the view that the army chief’s transition should not be made a political issue.
“We cannot say the people want him to stay on… we can’t judge the people’s sentiments through a series of fake facebook accounts,” said Mir, adding that Operation Zarb-i-Azb started by Gen Sharif has yet to be taken to its logical conclusion.
He said there is no shortage of capable officers in the army and “no commander in the army is indispensable”.
“A good commander is one who leaves after him a good replacement.”
He said transfers and appointments in the forces and courts should be done on the basis of seniority.
“But even when the army is making its own decision, it violates this system and gives power to whoever it likes… the elected government should change that and appoint people on the basis of seniority, like it happens in the case of the chief justice.”
Profile: COAS Gen Raheel Sharif
Born in Quetta on June 16, 1956 to Major and Mrs Muhammad Sharif, Army chief Gen Raheel Sharif grew up steeped in the military tradition.
He attained his formal education at Government College Lahore and later went on to attend the Pakistan Military Academy.
As a young officer, he performed his duties in Gilgit in an infantry brigade and also served as adjutant of Pakistan Military Academy.
Over the years, Sharif climbed up the military ladder mentored by Musharraf who handed him command of the 11th Infantry Division in Lahore.
He was awarded the Hilal-i-Imtiaz, the second highest civilian award and honour that is given to both civilians and military officers of the Pakistan armed forces.
Despite the common surname, Raheel Sharif is not related to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but is known to be close to tribal affairs minister Lieutenant-General Abdul Qadir Baloch, a key confidante of the Sharif family.
The general is married with two sons and a daughter.